Jack Whittenby David Rhodes
Hauser & Wirth (22nd Street) | January 26 – April 8, 2017
Jack Whitten’s first exhibition with Hauser & Wirth presents works from several series—“Quantum Walls”, “Portals”, lenticular works from the “Third Entity”, one piece from the continuing Black Monolith Project, and a sculpture (all dated 2015 – 17)—continuing a five-decade-long investigation of passions vis-à-vis a testing exploration of painting itself. Born in Bessemer, Alabama, Whitten moved to New York City at the beginning of the 1960s from Baton Rouge where he was involved in the civil rights movement, and entered a scene of vital jazz music and visual art. There he met artists including Norman Lewis, Willem de Kooning, Franz Klein, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, and Romare Beardon, inspiring a trajectory that combines with ease intellectual and visceral interests, and continues to present day. Technically, Whitten has long been an innovator—it’s worth remembering that he was moving paint across the surface of large abstract paintings in the 1970s with a long, blade-like devise some years before Gerhard Richter.
It’s no surprise that astral imagery comes to mind when viewing some of Whitten’s recent works. A devoted consideration of relationships between physics (Astral and Quantum) and visual and spatial experience manifest in certain works which recall imagery from satellite and deep space digital photography. Both the Quantum Wall and Portal series feature a partially tessellated surface of tile elements. Made from cutting dry acrylic paint into rectangular sections and placing them into wet acrylic paint, in much the same way as glass mosaic pieces are pressed into wet cement, the technique also recalls pixels—overlaying notions of craft with digital technology. Quantum Wall, ll (Missing Matter) (2016) is a work that feels as vast and unknowable as it does concretely present, and shapes the idea of a wall as mutable and transparently multi-dimensional, rather than an end or block. The Third Portal (2016), with its manipulated black disc-shaped center surrounded with predominantly blue acrylic tiles, is like both a telescopic view and an entrance (portal) to another dimension.
As a clear departure from his more familiar paintings, his sculpture Quantum Man (The Sixth Portal) (2016) invites our identification of the large assemblage of Cretan walnut, Serbian oak, lead, and acrylic, as another “body”. It’s the first time Whitten has exhibited his sculpture. An important moment for Whitten was the realization that paint itself could be removed from a surface and be given a separate physical autonomy (exemplified in his breakthrough “Slab Paintings” of the 1970s), and perhaps extends here into an experimentation with materials now in real space.
The artist’s ongoing “Black Monolith” project dedicated to memorializing black artists, writers, thinkers, and poets, is represented by Black Monolith X, Birth of Mohammad Ali (2016), another large-scale painting that features two irregular shapes which appear both pooled across the surface and, from a distance, unmoored from it. Whitten has said of this series that it is intended to “honor our own and grieve our own.” Typical of the lenticular works—all titled The Third Entity—The Third Entity #5 (2016) presented here is made with black graphite and Renaissance Wax on evolon. Like all of Whitten’s lenticular works, the appearance is of a topography, like aerial photography of a surface—terrestrial or not. Equally, on closer viewing of the evident process, a manipulation of the surface, viscerally rubbed and smeared, returns us to the craft of making.
The large white cube galleries accommodate this spacious installation of assertively inventive, intellectually provoking, and often emotionally resonant works. It is a show that presents where the artist is now, in the wake of a five-decade practice, whilst generating speculation as to where he might (perhaps unexpectedly) go next.